Empathy. It’s that amazing gift that allows us to feel for others — and, I’d argue, one of the essential qualities needed to write compelling fiction. But is empathy limited, as many scientists have long argued, only to human beings among all the animals?
According to a new study out about dogs, the answer is a resounding NO. Dogs are also great empathizers, both within their own species, and beyond — and especially with their human “owners”.
For years, human empathy has been measured in the laboratory by observing whether or not a person yawns in response to the yawn of someone else. A contagious yawn indicates the presence and functionality of “mirror neurons” in the second yawner’s brain, which take outside information about others and internalize it in ways that actually allow us to “feel” what others feel.
Interestingly, sociopaths and autistics tend to lack functional mirror neurons and tend not to yawn when other people yawn. I wish I’d known this a few years ago, because I would have just yawned in front of The Cowboy and known right off the bat that he lacked empathy, instead of having to witness him beating his dogs before it hit me. The Cowboy, like so many sociopaths, enjoyed justifying his own blind brutality by saying that’s just how nature does things. But science is proving abusive idiots like him wrong.
Now, researchers in Japan have found that dogs also yawn in response to seeing their owners yawn — but not so much to seeing others yawn. This means that dogs love us, and feel our feelings. Dogs have empathy. I’ve long suspected this, because my own dog Topaz will always try to comfort me when I’m sick or sad. She’s amazing like that.
Similar research among primates shows that all apes have empathy, with bonobos actually having MORE empathy than human beings. In other words, it is no longer correct just to say someone who is compassionate and kind is “humane.” Rather, empathy is the norm among mammals, and as many have long observed, human beings could learn a lot about kindness from their fellow creatures, including their dogs.